An Interview with Rebecca Traister

The author of All the Single Ladies talks marriage, pay equity, and the many ways society continues to hobble women.


The life of the single woman is complicated, empowering, punishing, and liberating. Today, the infinite number of alternate routes to traditional marriage and motherhood has allowed women to pursue unlimited combinations of love, sex, partnerships, parenthood, work, and social roles, enabling them to follow paths that were previously marked with societal barricades.

In her new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Woman and the Rise of an Independent Nation, veteran journalist and New York Magazine writer-at-large Rebecca Traister examines the lives of single women from urbane centers to conservative enclaves to uncover the historic and contemporary dialogue fueling their existence. She sought to determine how these women were reshaping the nation’s social policies and the idea of the traditional nuclear family. By looking at this “mass behavioral revolution” shaped by her peers, what she found was that “these women are not waiting for their real lives to start; they are living their lives, and those lives include as many variations as there are women.”

I sat down with Traister to talk single vs. married life, the pesky pay discrepancy that still plagues our gender, and how she thinks social policies need to better reflect our changing times.

In your book, you chronicle the initiative of some seriously bold women in history who paved our way, like Anita Hill, Betty Freidan, and Margaret Sanger, who, in 1916, was jailed for 30 days for opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Who would you say are some of the biggest current female voices out there affecting change?

I think you see a lot in terms of activism around issues like paid leave, and early-childhood education, and the people who are leading the way on those fronts are both women and men, married and single. One example is California representative Barbara Lee, who presented legislation in Congress to overturn the Hyde Amendment (a legislative provision barring the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortion unless the pregnancy arises from incest, rape, or to save the life of the mother).

So there’s a lot happening around social and economic policy by women and men in Congress, and it’s expanded into popular culture visionaries like Lena Dunham and Shonda Rhimes. There are all kinds of forces and voices in pop culture that are offering us a diverse view of what independence what might look like. There are still women who are being jailed for having abortions around the country, or denied reproductive rights, so we need those kinds of omnipresent voices that can deliver a strong message.

Throughout the last century, major geopolitical events have shifted women’s roles in both the workplace and the public sphere, as the Depression and WWII led many single and married women into the workforce in the 1930s and 40s. But then, by the end of the 1950s, 60 percent of female students were dropping out of college to get married. In the 1960s, this trend continued. You quote Nora Ephron’s commencement address at Wellesley, referring to her own graduating class of 1962, “If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect.”

Yeah, and look at us now. Hillary Clinton married a president. In some ways, she took on a very traditional role and then had a radical drive to pursue her own career. She married a president, she was Secretary of State, and now she’s running for president. She graduated from Wellesley just five or six years after Ephron.

In 2010, sociologist Kathleen Gerson found that more than 70 percent of women said they would “rather be unmarried than become a housewife.” So we’ve come a long way, but our social policies in America haven’t exactly caught up.

This is what I’m talking about when I talk about paid sick leave, advocating a higher minimum wage, and reforming social policies built on the idea that families are modeled in one way around a married, hetero partnership. There’s a distribution of power where you don’t have equal pay protection. Part of the population doesn’t have protections on their wages, nor programs that ensure they can get paid when they take maternity leave.

What it creates is one American depending on another, and a dependency on marriage for economic stability. There is this enduring notion of unpaid work focusing on domestic service and childcare. Who is supposed to pick up the kids at 3 p.m. and take care of aging parents? Husbands and wives are now equal earners, yet we don’t have any infrastructure to support this new way of life. Re-working the concession of what it means to have a family in the current socio-economic culture needs to look at the realistic lives of all families and wage earners.

There are a lot of staggering statistics in this book, like the fact that, in the 1950, one in 10 Americans over 65 lived alone. Today, due to increased lifespans and higher divorce rates, one in three do. What do you think needs to happen to meet the social and healthcare demands of that conversion?

We need to get better about changing housing regulations. Young people have roommates and live in communal housing of varied configuration. Specifically, in dense urban areas, there is an increasing need to change housing regulations where people who are unrelated can live together. We need to look at changing traditional mortgages, as well as living situations in aging and retirement communities, where communal living is going to become increasingly important. Some assisted-living facilities that have cropped up in recent years have already based their infrastructure on this new model.

You profile several independent, single women in the book who wouldn’t give up their urban/employed/expansive life for a minute. Do you think part of that has to do with the evolving possibility that exists in dense, urban environments where you’re constantly meeting new people, and, as you say, “The combination of community and anonymity is unburdening”?

Yeah, there are city people and not so “city” people — those who thrive in urban environments and women who don’t. But generally, human beings all want full lives, and that means economic stability, professional and intellectual fulfillment, artistic, sexual, and social satisfaction; and cities offer women all kinds of paths, engagements, and connections. Cities draw young, independent women because they have a wealth of jobs and places to live, public transit, and are built for people to live in high-density spaces. There are neighbors to meet, sexual interests to pursue, takeout to be had, lecture series to attend, and lots of us want to be in a place where we can be immersed in that and pursue those experiences and opportunities.

Let’s talk a little about the differences in the social lives of singles vs. marrieds. Several of the women chronicled in your book stated that they had a richer and more diverse social life when they were single because they were drawn out into cultural events and parties more. When they got married, their world got smaller. You note that single people are more politically active and volunteer more, while married woman focus more on the wellbeing of their family unit, but not necessarily on the community outside of that.

Yes, and that was true for me, as well, when I went from 15 years of living independently to being married with kids. Urban studies scholar and sociologist Eric Klinenberg found that single people are more externally engaged than their married counterparts, attending more concerts and public events, and are more politically minded and active in volunteering circles. When I was single, I went to more concerts, baseball games, and theater, but then when I was in a relationship, it took me out of that world. Other time commitments crept in. It’s often said that single people or women without children are selfish, but the opposite is true. Couples with children are shown to be much more self-interested as a unit and to devote time only to what serves their direct internal needs than [are] single people.

In 2010, women held the majority of all jobs in the country, along with 51 percent of all management positions. About a third of the nation’s doctors are female, as are 45 percent of its lawyers. Women receive about half of all medical and law degrees and more than half of the master’s degrees. Yet women still earn an average of 77 cents for every man’s dollar. Why do you think?

There are all kinds of reasons. In the old marriage setup, women did all kinds of domestic work for free. Childcare, elder care, any kind of “caretaking” work is so undervalued in society, and it’s crucial, important work. These are professions like teaching, nursing, and early childcare that are essential, and yet they’re deeply devalued economically. Meanwhile, we highly value IT, coding, and finance. So we have these entire professions, traditionally anchored by women, which have been economically devalued. People still have longstanding attitudes about women not being breadwinners. In my lifetime, I witnessed a friend who was denied a raise because her boss said her husband made too much money. This is absurd. She is not being valued individually for what she brings to the table in her place of work.

Historically, women are not supposed to be earning as much as men. Institutionally, there’s been a harsh view of a woman in power. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer have publicly empowered women to negotiate higher pay and to communicate what they’re supposed to deserve and demand. But we still have leading views that are shaped by old assumptions that women don’t need to be financially independent. We also can’t talk about this problem without looking at the minority issues also surrounding the lack of equal pay. For example, Latino women earn 52 cents for every male dollar. We need to put old biases to rest, but this doesn’t happen quickly.

Women earn an average of $18,000 more per year if they marry late, while men, on average, earn more when they marry early. Likewise, having children has a positive impact on men’s professional standing in the workplace, but has the opposite effect for women. Sociologist Michelle Budig has spent years studying the gender gap and, in 2014, found that based on data from 1979-2006, men saw, on average, a six-percent increase in earnings after becoming fathers, while women’s wages decreased four percent for every child.

This is the thing. These attitudes do not die easily. Women pay with their salaries when they marry and more when they have kids, but men benefit. I’m optimistic that this is changing as we’re increasing the normalization that men and women are living and working together as equal colleagues. We have egalitarian domestic and workplace duties and are working toward equal wages. But what is still true when men and women marry is that women traditionally take on more of the childcare and domestic work, while earning less than their spouses.

This book isn’t for or against marriage, but is more a presentation of the shifting trends among our citizenry. It says that marriage doesn’t have to be the only “normative adult path.” And, essentially, that individuals on the outside of the marriage pact should be treated a little more equally by society and their workplace.

You don’t have to be a left-leaning feminist to understand and appreciate all the ways in which people are forging their lives these days in and outside of marriage. You have friends, sisters, daughters, cousins who are living a life that’s very different than what we were told women’s lives were going to look like 20 years ago. There are still communities where people have very traditional notions, but that’s not the imperative that was the norm as recently as 20 years ago. People marry later in the cities and earlier in the suburbs, but even the women in the book who represent conservative circles have shown that there’s a major shift where women recognize they need to create their own careers and paths. If you look at recent election cycles, both at the state and presidential level, single women are an increasingly high representative group of the electorate. They were one-quarter of the vote in the 2012 presidential election. When you reduce women’s ability to control their reproductive lives, when you fail to provide them with paid leave and early education, when you fail to raise wages, you create a population that is, as it was historically, dependent on men economically.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is this: “You want your life to get better? Don’t just think about being a wife.”

The biggest message of the book is not at all pro- or anti-marriage. It’s far more that you allow your life to be full. Live your life, ladies — in all the directions that you need to let it grow. It should not be capped off by, or made more legitimate by, the fact that you are or are not married. You should be free to live a full life with passions and successes and failures, which may or may not include traditional family or any number of things, but marriage is no longer the central organizing principle. You are no less an adult because of your marital status.

comments powered by Disqus